Sunday, November 3, 2013

Ow. Ow. Ow. Ow.

I don’t think I can do this. I really can’t. 

I’ve been asked to apply for promotion next year, and one of the mandatory things is to submit at least three ‘Student Evaluation of Teaching’ reports. These are evaluations, not of the unit, but of the lecturer, and they are not compulsory for the students to fill out. 

While there is a process for getting us to do 'Unit Evaluation' surveys as a matter of course, 'Student Evaluation of Teaching' surveys aren’t done automatically: instead, you request the teaching-management-minions-that-be to do them your behalf - by the simple expedient of sending them (the minions) an email. 

I have gotten away without doing any of these for the past nine-and-a-bit years. It isn’t actually because of the excuse I gave my colleagues the other day, that it is too much bother (after all, I just have to send someone an email). I don’t like the whole idea of them. The thought of using them in a promotion application makes me twitchy in a way people who knew me in high school will remember.

Why, you might ask? 

#1. They don’t measure anything relevant. 

With all respect to my students – who are uniformly great people, eminently deserving of HDs and free beer – a student who has just completed a unit is not yet in any position to evaluate the unit or the lecturers who have helped them through it. They don’t know if the skills and knowledge they obtained from it will be useful to them in their career, they don’t know how it fits into the whole body of knowledge and skills they will obtain in their degree, and they can’t judge whether it will have a permanent impact on how they view the world or was just an entertaining intellectual cul-de-sac. They can't judge whether their lecturer has given them a fatally flawed and bogus take on the topic, or has set them up with a solid basis for an ever deepening life-long understanding of it. The immediate impact of the unit or the teacher on the student is not relevant to the desired educational outcome.

Okay, so they don’t measure anything relevant. But I can just about put up with all the rigmarole about citation counts and impact factors – which also aren’t measures of anything relevant. Why can I swallow irrelevant measures of value in my research, but not in my teaching?

#2. They measure the irrelevant thing badly.

With research, the irrelevant indicators are at least reasonably transparent and quantitative measures of something. Okay, forget the goal of measuring how I helped the unit to meet its true educational outcome. How well did I help the students pass tests and keep them entertained in the process?  This is also something that student evaluations of teaching can’t really tell me.

You can’t step in to the same river twice. So a student can judge how they did in my part of a unit compared to how they did in other parts of the unit, or how entertaining my part of the unit was compared to other parts of the unit, but they can only encounter my material for the first time once. The material and the lecturer are inextricably entwined, so on the more modest goal of judging how good I was at getting them to know topic X, or entertaining them while I did it, a student survey is also flawed. They can only compare me with other lecturers teaching topics Y and Z – topics which might be intrinsically easier or harder and more or less entertaining.

And, since these evaluations are not mandatory, the proportion of students who fill them out is always woefully unacceptable by the standards of a poll or any peer-reviewed work in the social sciences. The only students who will be bothered to answer them will be the students who want to drive a stake through my heart and bury me in the crossroads at midnight, and those who want to have my baby. Normal middle-of-the-road representative worked-off-their-feet students will not bother.  

Those first two complaints are almost equally applicable to 'Unit Evaluation' Surveys. Which I don't like doing either, but I do when I have to.

There are two other  irritating things that only apply to these ‘Student Evaluation of Teaching’ reports:

#3. They are open to abuse.

With research, I can’t pick and chose what part of my ouevre to display, unless I want to cut my own throat and look unproductive by leaving a whole bunch of papers out. They are all out there in the public domain anyway, with quasi-empirical quantitative variables attached to them telling you how popular they are. 

But the rules for the promotion application are practically begging me to cherry-pick the very best teaching evaluations I can, with no oversight. That is just bad. Bad! No peer-reviewed journal in the social sciences would accept a methodology where researchers conducted ten surveys and reported on the three that gave the results supporting their theory.

#4. They are an imposition on the students.

I know these surveys don’t measure anything relevant. And any qualitatively useful information about things I might have done badly, or compliments that make me feel warm and fuzzy that I am on the right track, show up on the Unit Evaluation surveys anyway. So I don’t need these Teaching Evaluation surveys to learn anything that might be useful for current students. Or future students. They are only useful for me. I don’t want students to waste their time doing something that is only useful for me. I would rather they spent their time creating new Chemistry Cat memes.